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Sheriff: One chance to get it right

by MADISON HARDY
Staff Writer | May 25, 2021 1:00 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — With the fear that Kootenai County lacks sufficient means to prepare for growth, Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris called on community leaders to fix public safety issues before it's too late.

In a legislative town hall Saturday at Candlelight Christian Fellowship, Norris told the crowd there is no plan to protect residents against the burdens of growth. During his campaign, Norris said the No. 1 issue he heard from the community was the impact of high-density housing developments on regional crime rates. 

"I was excited to see the strategic plan for Kootenai County on public safety when I came into office. I was excited to see the strategic plan for the build-out of our jail because we will need more beds pretty quickly," Norris said. "We have no such strategic plan. There is no plan for public safety to address this growth here in Kootenai County." 

Part of Norris' effort to maintain public safety is asking the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners to address growth through a strategic plan. 

"I'm going to be very blunt," Norris said. "What I, what this community, needs is leaders to step up to the plate and resolve some of these issues that are causing us these infrastructure stresses in every infrastructure sector here. Every single one of them, from schools to the jail, to traffic."

One influence that Norris believes will help shape the growth trajectory of the county is the willingness of county leaders to rethink how they spend money. 

This month, Norris and other KCSO department heads met with the board to present the preliminary fiscal year 2022 budget. Within the document, KCSO officials sought a budget increase of $4.8 million to meet operational needs. 

In a follow up with The Press, Norris said three items would specifically aid KCSO in managing growth:

• Complete the Kootenai County Jail expansion by finishing the facility's second wing

• Unfreeze KCSO positions in dispatch and patrol departments

• Approve budgetary dollars that would assist in hiring new employees to fill KCSO's rising number of department vacancies

"We had the opportunity to complete both jail wings at once, but it would've cost an additional $3.5 million to complete the second wing," the sheriff said. "Instead, county leaders opted to forgo the expenditure and complete it later. Well, later has come, and estimates range as high as $12 million to complete that wing."

Norris said during the budget meeting that the county jail is at 90% capacity, with 406 inmates nearly filling the facility's maximum capacity of 451. Heading into the busy summer season, Norris said he worries those 45 remaining beds could fill fast. 

Norris did not include the jail expansion in the KCSO proposed fiscal year budget, but staff presented requests to thaw frozen jobs in several departments. Specifically, emergency communications officers, also known as a dispatcher, have three positions requested to be reopened at a loaded salary of $63,694.

"We are in critical need of dispatchers. We froze two positions last year, and we need to unfreeze those now," Norris told The Press. "That's representative in every area of the department like in our jail division." 

Since the population continues to increase, Norris said an understaffed KCSO regularly works overtime. He said the new residents bring more difficult situations to the county that require longer hours of patrol.

Last week on a patrol call, Norris said, he and SWAT personnel spent nine hours on a call involving a mentally disturbed person, pushing all staff into overtime. 

"We're getting more people that are mentally ill, more people that are suicidal, child neglect cases," the sheriff explained. "We're getting a bigger population with more labor-intensive calls for service."

To combat the strain of an understaffed department, KCSO requested $2.6 million in new positions and cost of living wage adjustments — accounting for over half the proposed expense increase. 

The issues he said KCSO is facing are "symptoms" of the adverse growth trend in Kootenai County, which leaders could manage through a developed strategic plan. 

"We only have one chance to get it right," Norris said. "That's why I encourage our city and county leaders to find ways to slow the growth until we can get a plan in place for what kind of community we want and a budget that is ahead of that plan."